Over the first two parts of this series about the biggest threats to the Rams in the NFC West, I wrote about the players I considered to be non-factors, called The Ignored, and players who couldn't be ignored, but were also unlikely to be game changers. They were called The In-Between.
Now comes the third group, titled The Threats. These are very good football players who will definitely swing a game or two throughout the season for their team. They make big impacts, and most will be in the discussion for a pro bowl appearance. They aren't in the top 5 guys, only because of the position they play, or because of deficiencies in their game, or inconsistencies in their play, or because there are only five slots for the top guys, and not everyone will fit.
The group in this column was, surprisingly, the easiest to decide on. I only really agonized over the placement of one of these five players. The rest seemed to fall naturally into this group. They are all very good, but don't always provide the overwhelming impact of the top five.
As much as it pains me to say so, the 49ers continue to rack up impact players. They were 13 - 3 last season for a reason. They have top players all up and down their roster. Even though I am not very high on their offense, the defense will likely continue to dominate, taking a lot of pressure off of Alex Smith and Co. Also, as I previously mentioned, the last of the Seahawks will come out in this column, as none of them were in my top five.
Just like in the first couple parts of this series, I'm sure people will disagree with me on where I placed certain guys, and that's fine. It should make for some interesting comments and discussions. As long as we all keep in mind we are all football fans, and keep it respectful, we can disagree all day about who belongs where, and the impact each guy will have.
Now, I bring you five of the most important players in the NFC West. These players are The Threats...
Jason Jones - Shortly after Cortland Finnegan signed with the Rams, the fansites were all abuzz with rumors that a deal with his former teammate, Jason Jones, was imminent. Finnegan was even quoted as saying he had a "great feeling" Jason Jones would sign with the Rams, reuniting the two of them with their former head coach, Jeff Fisher.
In one of the few disappointing moments of the offseason, five days after Finnegan expressed his optimism, the division rival Seahawks swooped in and signed Jones. Although Rams fans were disappointed, with the signings of Finnegan, Kendall Langford, and Scott Wells, we all understood there was only so much money to go around.
Then the contract details came out, and we found out he had signed with the Seahawks for just 1 year and $4.5 million. For the first time, I questioned a decision of the Fisher/Snead regime. You can't let a talent like Jason Jones get away for such a small deal, particularly to a division rival. Jones is a physical freak. He is 6' 5" and 275 pounds of pure muscle, and just turned 26 years old on May 23rd.
His production undoubtedly took a hit last year, but a lot of that can be blamed on the new Tennessee coaching regime. They used Jason out of position, playing him on the outside, instead of at tackle, where he had previously thrived. In 2010, before the position change, Jason Jones was arguably the second best defensive tackle in the league, ending the season with 10 stuffs and 34 solo tackles. He was also top 10 among players at his position in sacks, pressures, and tackles for a loss.
His wasted 2011 campaign now history, he is back to playing defensive tackle for the hated Seahawks. After being part of the group in Tennessee ranked 31st in sacks last year, he joins a Seattle team who already has the dangerous Chris Clemons, and added pass rush specialist Bruce Irvin in the draft. Jones is on a 1 year deal, commonly known as a "prove it" deal, and will be motivated to be dominant to get a big deal next offseason. He has the physical tools to wreak havoc next season, and will be going up against new Rams acquisition Scott Wells, plus guards Harvey Dahl and whoever gets the other starting job. You can trust Jones will be seeing a lot of double teams, hopefully keeping the pocket from being crushed onto Sam Bradford.
Jones is in the best situation of his career thus far, and his motivation level will be off the charts. If the Rams hope to step up and beat the Seahawks in the season series for the first time since 2004, it will have to start with slowing down the Seahawks defensive line, and new tackle Jason Jones.
Adrian Wilson - In early August of 2011, the Cardinals front office got some devastating news. Adrian Wilson had torn his bicep, an injury which generally results in season ending surgery. But instead of having the operation, Wilson decided to try to do extra rehab on it, and continue to play. By week 1, he was out on the field, manning the strong safety spot he has had since being drafted in the 3rd round of the 2001 draft.
That alone would make for an amazing story, but it's not where it ends. Adrian Wilson didn't just play in week 1. He played every week. In fact, Adrian Wilson lead all defensive players with an astounding 1,134 snaps, and made a pro bowl. The man tore a muscle in his bicep, and still came out playing as well as ever, leading the way for a Cardinals pass defense who started the season looking like a historically bad one, but ended up in the upper half by the time the season ended.
It's tough to further express how amazing of a football player Adrian Wilson is after telling the above story. I could cite a ton of stats. He has been among league leaders at his position in tackles for a loss, passes defended, quarterback rating against, and missed tackles since he got into the league. Or I could cite the crazy fact that opposing quarterbacks have been more likely to throw at receivers covered by the team's corners than to receivers covered by Wilson. Or even point out the five pro bowls and three first or second team all pro appearances at the strong safety position.
In the end, though, stats and accolades don't really get the point across of what kind of a football player Adrian Wilson really is. He is an old school guy, who loves to go for the big hit, who plays through injuries, who is willing to follow his instincts and leave his assignment to make the play. His coverage ability is among the best at his position, but he is always a threat to come up and hammer the enemy running back in the backfield.
The Cardinals have a good, young defense who will make the team competitive for a long time in the NFC West. And the leader of the defense is Adrian Wilson, the "old man" of the team at just 31 years old. If the Rams hope to get past the Cardinals, they will have to deal with the threat of strong safety Adrian Wilson
Chris Clemons - Let's play a quick guessing game. Out of the following players, who has the most sacks since the beginning of the 2010 season: Julius Peppers, Osi Umenyiora, Clay Matthews, Dwight Freeney, or Chris Clemons? Everyone knew it was Chris Clemons with 22 sacks, right?
Clemons may be the most overlooked player in the NFC West. There are multiple reasons for this. He doesn't have a signature celebration when he gets a sack. He doesn't have awesome speed. He doesn't bull rush offensive linemen into the quarterback. He spends a lot of time at a position virtually no other teams but the Seahawks have; the Leo, a pass rush specialist position. He's not flashy. He is the prototypical "lunch pail" player. He doesn't even have awesome facial hair.
But Chris Clemons has been one of the best pass rushers in the NFL since he arrived via trade in Seattle in 2010. After averaging just 4 sacks per season through his first 5 seasons, Chris burst on to the scene in Seattle with 11 sacks his first season, and was credited with at least a partial sack in 9 of Seattle's 16 games. He followed that up with arguably his best game of the season in the divisional round of the playoffs, scoring 5 tackles, a sack, a run stuff in the backfield, and a knocked down pass.
He followed up his breakout 2010 season with an even better 2011 season, scoring the same 11 sacks, which was good for a second consecutive top 15 finish in the league. He also increased his total tackles, solo tackles, forced fumbles, pass deflections, and run stuffs in the backfield.
More important to Rams fans, his games against the Rams have rated near the top of a scale ranging from "Wow, he's having a good game" to "There were horses, and a man on fire, and he killed a guy with a trident". In 4 games over the last two seasons against the Rams, Chris Clemons has 15 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. The only way the Rams could have stopped him from abusing their quarterback is if they had brought Orlando Pace out of retirement to block him, then hit Clemons with a stick when he wasn't looking.
Chris Clemons may not get the recognition he deserves nationwide, but Rams fans know him well by now. And they know if the Rams are going to have any hope of beating the Seahawks, they will have to deal with Chris Clemons. Or just hope a holdout keeps him from reporting.
Calais Campbell - If you listen to the hype, and read the new contract information, about Calais Campbell, you would be convinced he was the second coming of Bruce Smith, with a little LT mixed in.
The fact he didn't break the sack record was just bad luck. Anything less than 30 sacks in 2013 would have to be caused by injury, triple teams on every play, or the Mayan armageddon.
The Cardinals defensive projections for the upcoming 2012 season are: .09 yards per carry allowed, 112 sacks, and 3.0 points per game allowed, because expecting them to give up less than a field goal per game would be unrealistic.
***Calais Campbell once rejected an alley-oop from Magic to MJ to lead his high school basketball team to a victory over the LakeBulls to win the NBA championship.
***Calais Campbell was the player the Immaculate Reception bounced off of. It was not an accident.
***Calais Campbell gave Kirk Gibson a pat on the knee before Game 1 of the 1988 world series.
Is that enough made up Calais Campbell facts? One more? Alright...
***Calais Campbell was once scuba diving off the coast of Australia, when he was startled by another swimmer. RIP Steve Irwin.
In all seriousness now, Calais Campbell is a fine young player. If you were going to build a perfect physical specimen for a 3-4 defensive end, you would end up very close to the 6' 8", 300 pound frame with the huge wingspan of Calais Campbell. He has good pass rush ability, which is very valuable in today's NFL game. After struggling in 2010, Campbell rebounded in 2011, racking up 8 sacks and 72 tackles, with 53 of them coming solo, all very good numbers for a 3-4 defensive end. He also blocked 3 kicks on special teams, giving him 5 blocked kicks in 4 seasons in the NFL.
But sometimes stats are deceiving. Of Campbell's 8 sacks in 2011, 4.5 of them came in two games against the Rams and Seahawks, who were both near or at the bottom of the league in pass blocking. He also racked up 22 of his 72 tackles in the 4 games against the Seahawks and Rams. Calais had a tendency to feast on weaker competition in 2011, and faltered against better teams. In 6 games against playoff teams last year, Calais had 2.5 sacks total.
Another reason for his excellent statistical season was his extremely high snap count, with 1,033 snaps, one of the highest counts for any defensive linemen in the league. On ProFootballFocus, when ranked purely on volume of stats, Calais Campbell is the second highest rated interior lineman. But when he is ranked based on the number of plays he made versus the number of plays he was out there, Campbell barely cracks the top 20.
Calais Campbell is a good, young defensive lineman, who put up very good traditional stats in a contract season in 2011. The hype for him may have gotten out of hand, but that doesn't take away from the ability he has. He may not live up to his new megadeal, but the Rams will still have to deal with the threat Calais Campbell presents if they hope to beat the Cardinals in 2012. Let's just not get his bust in Canton ready quite yet...
Aldon Smith - "Smith, according to personnel sources, is a questionable fit for a 3-4 defense. It may take him awhile to make the transition to outside linebacker." - Adam Caplan of foxsports.com
"I think this is a risky pick. (Aldon Smith) is a bit overrated. He is somewhat tentative with contact coming at him." - Pete Prisco, of cbssports.com. He gave the 49ers a D grade for the pick of Aldon Smith
And there is the risk of instantaneous reactions to the NFL draft. Your words survive indefinitely on the internet for snarky fans to quote forevermore. Those two weren't the only ones to dislike the pick of Aldon Smith, either. The general consensus was Smith was talented, but raw, and was a reach at pick number 7. Aldon Smith spent the rest of the season showing experts why there were wrong about him, and about the 49ers for picking him where they did.
Aldon Smith started the 2011 season trying to transition from a 4-3 defensive end in college to a 3-4 outside linebacker for the 49ers. By the time the dust cleared on the 2011 season, not only had he completed the transition, but Smith had racked up one of the greatest pass rushing seasons ever by an NFL rookie, falling just a half sack shy of the rookie record.
For the first couple weeks of the season, it appeared Aldon Smith was going to make the critics correct. He seemed lost and out of place, was rarely putting any pressure on the quarterback, much less actually reaching him for a sack, and was starting to make people wonder if the 49ers had made a mistake. Then week 4 came along, and Smith was able to get to Philadelphia QB Michael Vick for his first career sack. From there, he was full speed ahead.
In both of the two weeks following the Philadelphia game, Smith won the NFL rookie of the week, and took home the NFL rookie of the month award for October. His stats for the month were 6.5 sacks and a safety in just four games. He continued to pressure the quarterback throughout the rest of the season, including a 2 sack performance against the Rams, en route to setting the 49ers club record with 14 sacks. His performance against the Rams, plus a 2.5 sack outing against the Steelers, allowed Smith to gain his second defensive rookie of the month award, this time for December. His 14 sack total for the season was just one half sack below the rookie record, set by Jevon Kearse in 1999.
At the end of the season, Smith was the most efficient pass rusher in the entire league, based on pressures per number of attempts, according to ProFootballFocus, and had some of the recognition to go along with it. Smith was voted second in the Associated Press voting for defensive rookie of the year, and won the award from the Pro Football Writers of America.
The only negative to come out of Aldon Smith's rookie season came one week after the season ended, when he was arrested for a DUI in Miami. According to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, Smith had been seen swerving all over the road, and when he was pulled over, he failed a sobriety test. His blood-alcohol level was measured twice, once coming in at .194, and .176 the second time. That is over twice the Florida legal limit of .08. The NFL has not announced to this point what penalties there will be for his DUI arrest.
After Smith's outstanding rookie campaign, big things are expected out of him. For the Rams, the only way they will deal with this guy is by upgrading the offensive line, from top to bottom. Whether that comes from new personnel or by coaching up the underperforming players currently on the team, stopping Aldon Smith is not something which can be done by patching things up. If the Rams hope to climb the long mountain to the top of the West, they will have to go through the 49ers, and the threat of Aldon Smith.
A Few Final Thoughts - This column was dominated by two things. The first, clearly, was pass rushers, taking up four of the five slots. I didn't intend for it to be this way, but the NFC West has just started acquiring quite a good group of pass rushers. With the exception of Clemons (who is just 30), all of these guys are quite young as well. If Jones resigns in Seattle, there will be a lot of pressure on the Rams offensive line for years to come.
The second group to dominate this column was defensive players. All five of today's players were defensive. It makes sense, considering the NFC West's well published offensive futility. The NFC West was the lowest scoring division in the conference by over 240 points. Even without the putrid Rams offense, the West was still the lowest scoring division in the conference in points per game, at just 21.1 points per game. The East was the next lowest, but was still a full 1.5 points per game better at 22.6.
The only player I really struggled to place was Aldon Smith. I am a huge, huge fan of his, and after having watched him at Missouri, then seeing him adapt so quickly to the NFL, I was very tempted to put him in the top five threats. Ultimately, he fell one spot short.
This column was the last appearance of a Seahawks player, although I am a big fan of both of the guys mentioned today. If Irvin ends up being the pass rusher the Seahawks hope he can be, Seattle will be a threat in the west sooner rather than later.
Finally, I want to once again, thank everyone for reading, and, as usual, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments...